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Updated May 27: Simplified Recycling Iconography/Language–Customizable To Any Brand

The sheer diversity of recycling iconography/language mystifies the actual process of recycling. Deciphering how to recycle something can be too complicated and interruptive to make recycling an easy habit. And yes, some recycling wording is downright stressful, like: "acrylonitrile butadiene styrene." Why not recycle the current system of recycling symbols/terms into a simple, direct, action-oriented language that identifies exactly how a consumer should recycle a product.

Photo of Leigh Cullen
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Explain your idea in one sentence

Out with the old, obscure recycling symbol/language system + in with a new, simplified approach that's customizable to any brand.
Update 5.24.14:
Added a mood board to images section of post–Mood boards inspire the design process. Includes motion oriented symbols, interesting typography, creative use of arrows and circular/triangular iconnography, and superhero icons (inspiration for a new Tidyman symbol) ...

Update 5.24.14:

Rough comps (early iteration stage) for new recycling symbol system

Working through the idea of combining these 3 concepts into each new recycling symbol: 1) new icon + 2) simple directional statement (like "Recycle Me" or "Compost Me" or "Stick Me by the Curb") + 3) Jes' idea of motivational statements. Meaning that once a symbol system is designed, then companies can use the system as-is, or they can brand the refreshed icons with their own directional and motivational (and translated) statements.

Started to illustrate icons. (See images section of post.) Decided to focus first on glass, plastic and can recycling. Am testing them in 1-color and in small scale to simulate how they'd reproduce on packaging AND to see if they're actually legible (and universal enough). Working through icons to make plastic distinct enough from glass.

From a typography perspective, played up the letter "r" (for recycle) and "c" (for compost). Turned those letters into the arrow that symbolically designates "recycle" or "reuse." Drawn to two Google fonts: Raleway (since it's almost perfectly round) and Roboto. Roboto is used in Google Glass. It's crisp and legible at small scale. And has a great condensed version.

Started playing around with 3D icons, motion and introduced very basic color. Digging Jes' idea of adding motion to icons. Check out the new accessibility icon as an example. Here's a FastCo article about the revamped accessibility icon here. And, take a look at AIGA's symbol icons here which apparently are pretty universally recognizable.


Next steps: Keep illustrating and iterating until something seems to work. Start linking motivational language to icons. Jes, I think I'll try to update Tidyman visually to superhero status -- to go along with your "Well Done Superhero" motivational statement. Tidyman, aka Recycleman, can hold it down with Spiderman and Batman. (This is Tidyman's current look.) Having a superhero recyling symbol might be a way to engage children...


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Update 5.22.14:
Goal: Design a set of universal recycling symbols

Sub-goal: Draft accompanying sample text per icon that clearly states how a product should be recycled (like the Sweetgreen example below), possibly with motivational language. Example of strong motivational language on Johnson & Johnson's Baby Lotion (plastic product packaging) is, "Our Babies Will Inherit Our Planet. Please Recycle."

Initial research: What are the most commonly used, global recycling symbols currently? I think it may be these:
  • Recyclable (mobius loop)
  • Glass Recycling
  • Aluminum Recycling
  • Steel Recycling
  • Wood Recycling (recycled content/FSC)
  • Paper Recycling
  • Plastic Recycling (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • The Green Dot
  • Compostable
  • Made of Recycled Content
  • Waste Electricals
  • Be Tidy! (Tidyman)
Please let me know if any icons are missing that are commonly used outside of the US.

Reference these links to see where the most overlap in iconography occurs:
http://www.recyclemore.ie/recycling_symbols

http://www.recyclenow.com/recycle/packaging-symbols-explained

http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/green-living/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321#slide-1

http://earthodyssey.com/symbols.html

Next steps:
Research fonts, quick icon sketches, toss around some directional/motivational language ideas to accompany icons...

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Original Post:
Attached are photos of a branded Sweetgreen plastic cup. Sustainability is a clear part of the company's brand voice. The subtle humor of the cup telling the consumer to “Compost Me” is engaging and fun. The message on the cup says:

"Sweetgreen (logo)
Compost Me
Compostable in municipal or institutional facilities, which may not be available in your area. Not suitable for home composting."

The general concept is a win:
  1. Companies can customize tone/style based on brand voice.
  2. Language can be localized.
  3. Confusing recycling symbols are removed.
  4. The language is clear and instructs the consumer exactly how to recycle the product.

Granted, this particular Sweetgreen message is still a tad confusing: What do I do if composting isn’t available in my area?–Can I recycle the cup with other plastics? Where do I find out about local composting facilities?... If the message also added a URL directing to local recycling facilities (like Recyclebank.com) then the consumer isn't necessarily stuck with good intentions, but not enough info to take further action.

Describe how your idea would help form new habits and improve recycling at home

The product would clearly (as clearly as possible in the local primary language) instruct a consumer exactly how to recycle the product in hand. Meaning the consumer won't have to put too much thought into the action. And simplicity of action enables easier habit formation.

How might you design an early, lightweight experiment to further develop your idea?

Find an example of product packaging that has a ton of info on it. Figure out where/how to insert clear recycling language/instructions. Roll the messaging out across different types of containers the brand uses to form a consistent suite of branded products.

What aspects of your idea could benefit from the input of our OpenIDEO community?

Has the OpenIDEO community seen similar successful product packaging examples in their hometowns/countries. If yes, I'd love to see them.

22 comments

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Spam
Photo of Jes Simson
Team

Hey Leigh, another great idea. I've never seen these compostable cups before - they're great. I love how they use such a big chunk of space to tell people to recycle!

Some other great examples include Method's "Recycle for good karma" and Innocent smoothie's "This bottle is made of recycled plastic, please recycle me so that we can make some more." Some Innocent bottles also include the web address for recycle now, a UK gov website that tells you how to recycle in your particular area. Both use their brand voice in an entertaining and charming way to ask you to recycle.

I've been trying to tackle a similar thing over here: http://openideo.com/challenge/recycle-challenge/ideas/changing-the-label-to-trigger-recycling-behaviour

Spam
Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Great examples, guys! Does anyone here have thoughts about how we might scale a united, customisable set of icons across brands as eight is suggesting? (what might motivate and incentivise brands to get involved?) Looking forward to some savvy thinking on this...

Spam
Photo of Leigh Cullen
Team

Thanks Jes & Meena!

I think recycling symbols/icons could be eliminated entirely. They tend to be confusing. Instead companies would be responsible for writing one or two easy to find/read sentences (in their brand tone of voice) on product packing that tells consumers exactly how to recycle the product. A link could also be provided to find more info on how to recycle in the consumer's neighborhood.

For ex., a plastic #1 PETE bottle could say, "I'm Plastic. Recycle me at your curb. Link to Recyclebank.com to check out local recycling opportunities & incentives." "#1 PETE" could be printed in small type–for recycling banks to use as an identifier for sorting, but that info may not be necessary for consumers to memorize.

I'll see if Jes wants to brainstorm with me on universal iconography!

Spam
Photo of Leigh Cullen
Team

Jes, added you as a team member! You want to brainstorm universal recycling symbols together? :)

Spam
Photo of Jes Simson
Team

Hey Leigh - I would love to. A heads up though, I'm at the pointy end of a night school course so if I go quiet for a day or two, I'm probably just snowed under.

Spam
Photo of Leigh Cullen
Team

Jes, Fab! We'll team up whenever we have free moments. You can find my contact info on my OpenIDEO profile page. Found additional related research about recycling iconography which I'll add to this post...

Spam
Photo of Jes Simson
Team

Cool Leigh - my details are there too.

Spam
Photo of Jes Simson
Team

Hey Leigh - do you have an email address I can send a doc with some ideas to?

Spam
Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Or if you don't feel like sharing your email address so publicly, perhaps Jes could reach out to you via Twitter and you could send a direct (private) message to her there? Jes – do you have a Twitter account? You can see Leigh's Twitter handle over on her profile. We're excited to see what might come of a collaboration between two such switched-on minds!

Spam
Photo of Leigh Cullen
Team

Morning (from the US) Meena & Jes! Just catching up on this thread.

---
Jes, are you @WasteFreeWednesday? If yes, ping me there and we'll exchange info. Love to see what you've been brainstorming. Sketched a few ideas myself.

Been doing general research on recycling symbols to assess breadth of iconography out there. Will add those links to the above post today.

Which recycling symbols are most used in the AU Jes? And which symbols do you think are the most confusing to people.

As a starting point, perhaps we define which set of symbols we're working with and explain those symbols in a few words -- in the simplest, most universal terms as possible.

And why don't we attach our brainstorms to the post to see if it sparks ideas in the rest of the OpenIDEO community...

More in bit!

Spam
Photo of Jes Simson
Team

Yes Leigh, I am @wastefreewednesday. I haven't had a personal twitter account for a couple of years now and recently set one up for another open ideo idea (https://openideo.com/challenge/recycle-challenge/ideas/no-waste-wednesday-a-social-campaign-to-nudge-people-to-think-about-the-waste-they-consume).

I've added the word doc to "A really big reminder to recycle" (https://openideo.com/challenge/recycle-challenge/ideas/no-waste-wednesday-a-social-campaign-to-nudge-people-to-think-about-the-waste-they-consume) and added you to the team. Hopefully you can access the doc. It's a pretty basic brainstorm on different types of messages that could appeal to different types of motivations to recycle. They need to be iterated, but it's a start.

With regards to recycling symbols in Australia - we generally use the triangular recycling symbol with arrows. It is usually black on a yellow bin in a domestic setting, yellow on blue bin in a public setting and black or white on various coloured bins in a commercial setting (where the different colours denote different types of recyclable materials). We generally don't have to sort our domestic recycling in Australia. When you live in a council that requires sorting, they usually use the triangular symbol along with symbols that stand for the materials that go in that bin (eg: a simple can, bottle, glass vector). We also have a triangular symbol with a number in the centre to specify which number plastic something is (although no one has a clue what this is). I find that confusion really sets in when you by imported products that use different symbols.

Spam
Photo of Leigh Cullen
Team

Hey Jes,
Yep, I see the word doc. Will take a spin through it. Glad to be part of the team! And thanks for the AU perspective.

From what I can gather/guess, it looks & sounds like a group of recycling symbols exist that are (generally speaking) universal. But, stylistically, those symbols don't visually appear like they come from the same family. Some of the illustrations are hard to decipher visually--like the green dude tossing something round into a green block is supposed to designate "glass recycling"... Some icons are numbered and have abbreviations which add to general confusion. And, so many recycling icons have been created that stray a little from & far from what I think is the base set of symbols. It's hard to tell what's legit (what's recognized by recycling banks) and what isn't. All of this waters down the recycling message...

Though, I have to say, I like the humor behind some of these icons. There's a "Tidyman" icon which is supposed to warn people to "dispose of this carefully and thoughtfully." If an icon has an element of humor & is visually clear, it can go a very long way--if the humor translates across cultures.

Am adding some links (to the above post) to current, core recycling symbols. You can see where the most overlap occurs. Do you see the bulk of these symbols in Australia? Making sure we're focusing on updating a set of symbols that's already fairly universal. -- I think this may be the group of symbols to start on:

Recyclable (mobius loop)
Glass Recycling
Aluminum Recycling
Steel Recycling
Wood Recycling (recycled content/FSC)
Paper Recycling
Plastic Recycling (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
The Green Dot
Compostable
Made of Recycled Content
Waste Electricals
Be Tidy! (Tidyman)

I started looking at fonts and am doing bird's eye view thinking on how to make the set of symbols consistent... ie, quick-sketch stage.

Sidenote: Am in a mobile startup, wearing many hats across brand/marketing, product design/UI/UX, and devices (including Google Glass!). I might briefly fall off radar too. :) But, ping me. I read everything that lands in my inbox and jump on it as soon as possible.

It's always exciting to tap into this community daily to see what's percolating! I love the global collaboration around design thinking. OpenIDEO, Meena, you guys have a great thing going here!

More as I have it!

Spam
Photo of Jes Simson
Team

Hey Leigh - great work! I've really only really seen the mobius loop here in Australia. Sometimes products will use a numbered plastic recycling symbol (mobius loop with the plastic's number in the centre) or the plastic will just have the number or PET embossed into it. I've also seen the Tidyman around, but he is usually used for general waste. As for the other symbols, I can't remember coming across them. However, we generally don't have to separate out recycling so separating into glass / plastics / paper may not be as important.

I listened to this podcast on Friday about a group in the USA who have designed a new international symbol of access so that the figure in the wheel chair looks more dynamic, independent and in charge of their destiny. I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but what if the mobius loop also had a bit more energy and movement and compelled the user to recycle the object? Complete pipe dream, but interesting nonetheless. Here's a link to that podcast, it was really fascinating: http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/icon-for-access/

Goodluck with the startup, I'm in awe that you spend as much time on here as you do given how incredibly busy you must be.

Spam
Photo of Leigh Cullen
Team

Hi Jes,

Read your motivation tagline ideas. Great comprehensive thinking! My favorite is, "Well done superhero!" Yep, I'm seeing an icon come out of that one.

If we try to make this pipe dream real ;) and keep plugging away at a refreshed recycling symbol system, I like the idea of mashing up: icon + directional statement ("Recycle Me" or "Compost Me" etc.) + motivational tagline. Companies could take the system and either use the motivational taglines we provide, or brand the taglines accordingly.

Started concepting icons today. (Added to above post.) They're in early iteration stage. Focused first on rendering out dynamic arrow shapes & basic, universal icons for glass, plastic and cans.

I'm running the icons through 1-color, scaling tests. I keep them black since many companies print in 1-color due to cost constraints. And then I scale them down to 1/4 to 1/2 inch size to see if they're legible–simulating small icon size on product packaging.

Next steps: keep iterating new ideas. Test out 3d/motion ideas. Digging the idea of adding a motion element, similar in concept to the new accessibility icon you pointed out.

Ping me with any more ideas you run across–visuals, words, concepts, etc.

What advertising classes are you taking? Thx much for the well-wishes re the startup. Working the brain out across a range of design projects -- professional, personal and community-based -- tends to energize me and sparks ideas for whatever project I'm tackling next. And, it's something I love doing. That makes adding it to the to-do list easy. :)

Spam
Photo of Jes Simson
Team

Hey Leigh - these logos look great. Keep going!

I really like the logos where the bottles are tipped and look like they're about to fall. It gives the logo a some energy and movement and could prompt a bit more consumer action than the mobius loop. This could work particularly well in the UK as the symbols look similar enough that people should get it pretty quickly. Keen to see what you discover during your scaling efforts, can you tell the difference between the bottle / glass and can at the smaller sizes? Do you think there is value in having a logo that looks like it comes from the same family as the mobius loop? If consumers look for this, it might be confusing if it suddenly disappears and is replaced by a new logo.

I also love the directional messaging with the simple "recycle me" and then allowing brands to use this as a space to engage with their consumer. Some brands already do this so well and it's surprising that more haven't jumped on the bandwagon.

As for advertising school, it's a course run by Australia's Ad industry to get into copywriting or art direction. It's been a great, albeit full on, way to get my creativity flowing again after a couple of years working as a lawyer. I couldn't agree more than OpenIDEO is a spectacular way to energise and spark ideas for both ad school and my actual job. It's so much fun!

Spam
Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Awesome global collaboration, guys – we're stoked to see this comprehensive meeting of minds!

Spam
Photo of Leigh Cullen
Team

Meena, Thanks much!

Jes,
The glass and plastic logos aren't as distinct as I'd like them to be when scaled down. It will just take iteration to get those exact icons right. Though, I'm wondering if putting an image of a glass bottle on a glass bottle is even necessary, or redundant. One already knows one's holding a glass bottle... That said, I think I still gravitate toward keeping those elements as part of the icon.

And yep, I'm not convinced the mobius loop should retire. Part of my brainstorming process is to rip the current symbol system apart to see what comes out of unconstrained brainstorming. It seems like it's probably wise to keep the mobius in play, since it's gained some sort of uphill foothold globally. Even if folks don't understand the mobius in all its forms (numbered and acronymned), at least it has the capacity to nudge people into the correct general action of sticking the product in a recycle bin.

My plan/goal is to develop a set of icons with the mobius loop, or a cousin to the mobius. And, for kicks, a set that strays further from the mobius.

I think part of the problem is that the mobius is perceived as a bit of a nuisance -- that it gets in the way of brand and data. Why else would it be sized to a barely legible format on most packaging?

Even if the mobius is modernized a bit, this leaves me wondering how to change perception? What drives people/companies to give the mobius such low billing on packaging? Are they having a gut reaction to the logo itself? Or, is the reaction to the broader recycling message? If the mobius is perceived as a badge companies proudly integrate into brand messaging/product packaging, then it might be given a greater presence on packaging...

Ps. Ad school sounds like fun :) I'm sure it's interesting to study the landmark changes -- from billboards to social media...

Spam
Photo of Jes Simson
Team

Thanks Meena!

Way to go Leigh!

I love what's coming out of your unconstrained brainstorming. Your so called 'strays' are really starting to take shape.

With regards to the logos you have prototyped, do you need to differentiate between glass and bottles. Do recyclables in America generally differentiate? My experience in Australia is that this isn't necessary (however, we don't have to split out our recyclables). If this is necessary, is there something else you could use to symbolise glass and plastics? Perhaps you could write 'glass' above 'recycle me' or replace the respective bottles with a G or B (although I do love the visual of the bottle shape).

I agree that the Mobius is really demotivating and does't really engage consumers or brands to recycle. However, the universality of the symbol is a really big asset. I think that it would be great to have a recycling logo that actually gives you a bit of a reason to recycle (rather than just saying that recycling creates a product circle / triangle of life).

As to why Brands don't use the mobius to engage - as you pointed to, this could be because brands haven't thought to use this space to engage consumers. I get the impression that most brands don't really harness this potential - they just slap a really small logo on the label because they have to and then move on. Even brands like method and innocent still use a really small logo and copy (even though this copy is pretty engaging).

Brands really need an incentive to use recycling to engage - otherwise the mobius logo will be slapped on and take up as little packaging real-estate as possible. Perhaps brand have to use this as part of their wider brand dialogue to be effective and to be taken seriously by brand and consumer alike (see Patagonia's plea that consumers don't purchase what they don't need: http://www.patagonia.com.au/environment/what-we-do/common-threads-initiative/). Given that consumers seem to be holding companies to a larger environmental and social standard, this could be a great growth area for brands. That is why equipping brands with ways to use recycling to engage (through copy / branded messages / ads) is really important.

Ad school is really fun, but I am looking forward to having some time off in 10 days. It's really inspiring to learn from Melbourne's top creatives. And yes, it's an incredible period of change in the ad industry - digital and social are really changing the rules of the game, which is fascinating.

Spam
Photo of Leigh Cullen
Team

Hey Jes,

I'm pretty sure our US recycling system exists in all shapes & forms. :) People may separate out recyclables in some areas. Others may clump glass/plastic/cans together. Some tiny, rural towns don't have a recycling system in place. It depends on the exact municipality. And it depends on each person.

What are your brainstorms around this:
"Brands really need an incentive to use recycling to engage - otherwise the mobius logo will be slapped on and take up as little packaging real-estate as possible."

What incentives can you imagine, other than saving the earth and making the world a better place for our children... :) Both pretty convincing/powerful, but trying to think outside the box.

I think the larger idea for brands is: Recycling and/or having a sustainable product/brand mentality is not just about sustaining Earth, it's about sustaining each brand. It's about increasing brand longevity. And about staying current with consumers. If sustainability is perceived as a necessary building block of brand evolution, then sustainability would have more power on product packaging and in core brand messaging.

A great article about a P&G study on consumer desire for sustainability and brand response:
http://www.environmentalleader.com/2014/04/23/spotlight-on-the-hows-and-whys-of-sustainable-products/

Pulled a quote from it here:
“Sustainable mainstream” consumers are interested in sustainability but are not willing to accept tradeoffs. If a product meets all their needs in terms of value and price, and is also sustainable, they will purchase that product. These consumers make up the vast majority, at nearly 70 percent."

PS. Posted a quick mood board in images section -- inspiration as I iterate logos...

Shout if anything else comes to mind!

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